To hell in a handbasket

21 March 2012
Only in en
openDemocracy says “big lunch” won’t stop white flight; the Dublin Review of Books brings good tidings from recent atrocitology; Glänta rehabilitates radical chic; A Prior accompanies Picasso to Palestine; Krytyka finds Ukrainian intellectuals fighting a losing battle on two fronts; Multitudes observes NGOs cosying up to power; L’Espill calls the captains to account as Valencia sinks into recession; and RozRazil relishes the rain.

In keeping with its “big society” scheme, the British Conservative Party’s recently revealed alternative to New Labour’s “state-sponsored multiculturalism” replaces top-down cohesion projects with community activities promoting “mainstream British values”. The centrepiece of the new policy? “The Big Lunch”, where neighbours get together for a meal on the weekend of the Queen’s diamond jubilee. “‘Diet lunch’ is a more apt metaphor,” writes Ali Rattansi in openDemocracy. “Hollow – big – society and mean – small – state are all that is on the menu.”

Given David Cameron’s recent denunciation of multiculturalism and similar comments from Angela Merkel, together with France’s burqa ban and the draconian “integration” measures introduced in the Netherlands and Denmark, “one might be forgiven for thinking that there is now just about enough dirt in the grave to finally bury multiculturalism in the UK and the rest of Europe,” writes Rattansi. But, “on closer inspection, public debates about multiculturalism in Europe have been played out at an abysmally low level.”

Refuting the tendency to blame multiculturalism for the “parallel lives” phenomenon, research into the rioting in northern England in 2001 finds that divisions between the Asian and white population had as much to do with “white flight” as to Asians’ refusal to integrate. The political reaction – introduction of Britishness to the school curriculum and a focus on national identity – ignored “the commonalities that defined the shared disadvantages, poverty and unemployment that unite the white and ethnic minority working classes,” argues Rattansi.

“Defining ‘Britishness’ has also proved elusive, descending into the same banalities about democracy, liberalism, tolerance and fairness that the Netherlands defined as Dutch national identity and the French defined as ‘Frenchness’ […] By emphasizing the obvious nice bits, each European nation also managed to avoid having to confront the undemocratic, the illiberal and the obvious class, colonial and ethnic cruelties that are also an intrinsic part of Europe’s history.”

Also: Gábor Schein analyses how Viktor Orbán’s neo-totalitarian language operates in a post-communist society paralysed by social atomization and state monopolization – and explains why, on the European stage, Orbán can pull the wool over the eyes of non-Hungarian speaking observers. And Anya Topolski draws attention to an astonishing promotional video for EU enlargement, in which a fair-skinned Europa uses her “soft power” to repel attack from a series of oriental assailants – raising questions as to how seriously the EU takes its commitment to diversity.

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“Conventional wisdom has it that violence is at least as prevalent today as it has ever been, and more people believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket than think it is becoming more peaceful and secure.” But two new books on violence by Stephen Pinker and Robert Muchembled bring good tidings, writes Dan O’Brien in the Dublin Review of Books: mankind’s destiny is not, in fact, “an ineluctable war of all against all”.

A vast body of evidence about the past shows incontrovertibly that the chances of an inhabitant of this planet dying violently have never been lower. This would appear to contradict our knowledge of the history of warfare, yet prevalence of violence is not about absolute numbers – and as “atrocitologist” Mathew White (cited by Pinker) has shown, WWII was proportionally speaking only the ninth most violent event in human history. The eight more violent events in fact occurred before the twentieth century (number one being the An Lushan revolt in eighth-century China, in which thirty-six million people were killed).

“If the decline of violence in human affairs is so marked,” asks O’Brien, “then why is it so underappreciated?” Explanations offered by Pinker and Muchembled include the fact that the exponential increase of archaeological and historical research means that findings go unnoticed beyond narrow scientific confines; that what doesn’t happen goes unreported, while the opportunities for reporting what does have rocketed; and that we are still influenced by earlier thinkers who erroneously (according to Pinker) believed that violence is in the nature of mankind (Hobbes) or that society turns noble savages into killers (Rousseau).

The Catholic novel: Eamon Maher reflects on why Ireland has produced no “Catholic novelists” of the stature of a François Mauriac or Graham Greene: “For the Catholic novel to flourish, I would contend that its practitioners need to be conscious of writing for a largely de-Christianized public. The problem with Ireland for many years, and especially during most of the nineteenth and twentieth century, was that it was too ‘Catholic’.”

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The Occupy movement on Wall Street, the Arab Spring on Tahrir Square, solidarity groups on Facebook, a steady stream of pamphlets such as Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-vous! – they all suggest that now is the “time for outrage” (the English title of Hessel’s book), for political activism and commitment. In a timely issue, Glänta (Gothenburg) tries to pin down what it means to be committed, to be engaged – as an intellectual or as a citizen – politically and socially.

Radical chic: Johan Frederik Hartle sets out to rehabilitate the concept of “radical chic”, coined by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 article of the same name, satirizing a fundraising party for the Black Panther movement in Leonard Bernstein’s 13-room Park Avenue penthouse duplex. Ever since, upper-class flirtation with radical causes has been ridiculed as being driven by nothing but a superficial wish to be fashionable. But in fact, writes Hartle, Wolfe was actually more reactionary than the people he criticizes; his text “relies on the populist hatred of any form of inappropriate social encounter”.

“If any political project wants to realize itself, it also has to occupy the realm of the aesthetic, to enter the struggle for the possession of the logic of the new. Radicalism that is only chic might not be enough, but if radicalism does not become chic it has no chance of becoming socially meaningful. The radicalism of the drawing room is better than none.”

In defence of thumb twiddling: Anders Johansson, on the other hand, is fed up with a commitment that serves only to form the image and identity of the individual: “The problem in is not lack of commitment but rather that it is such an attractive commodity.” Johansson’s recipe against “narcissistic pseudo-activism”: radical thumb twiddling. Only this makes visible the fundamental powerlessness of the individual.

Also: Judith Butler uses the mass demonstrations on Tahrir Square to criticize the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt: political action does not take place in a predefined public sphere but is constantly being constituted by bodies in movement. (Transversal, the journal of eipcp has published a longer version of the essay and here Judith Butler “performs” her thesis at the general assembly of the Occupy movement at Washington Square Park.)

The full table of contents of Glänta 3-4/2011

Political art, or rather art and the political, is also the focus of the recent issue of A Prior Magazine (Belgium). It is centred around a project initiated by Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven: Picasso in Palestine.

In June 2011, Pablo Picasso’s iconic work Buste de Femme (1943, part of the Van Abbemuseum collection) underwent a journey from Eindhoven to Ramallah, where it was exhibited for three weeks. Preceding this border-crossing loan agreement were two years of extensive research and negotiations in the legal, artistic and administrative fields.

Several of the articles in the bi-lingual issue (English and Arabic) show how the context of occupation marks Picasso’s painting and how its journey invests Buste de Femme with a “new history”. In conversation with Renzo Martens, architect Eyal Weizman calls the project “a kind of seismograph”: “It registers all sorts of political, economic and military relations by its movement.” But while elaborating on the possibilities of the journey, Weizman also points to the pitfalls of activist art. “What you need to do is to move action from potentiality to actualization,” he says. Until the institutions reproducing colonial patterns, for example at the borders to Palestine, are confronted with actual intervention, their policies – and politics – will remain intact.

Stamp my passport, please: Artist Khaled Jarrar has stamped each copy of A Prior with an original State of Palestine stamp. Anyone can get this stamp in their passport, but should be aware that this might create problems at the next border crossing (frequent flyer Slavoj Zizek is one of those who got a stamp). Merely symbolic or on its way to an “actualization” in Weizman’s sense? The editors comment: “Jarrar’s stamp not only makes each copy of A Prior a unique piece of art, but in providing the possibility of having their passports stamped, he also gives the readers a way to take their engagement to its full consequence.”

A Prior at MoMA: Issues of A Prior are currently on show in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They have been included in “Millennium Magazines”, an exhibition drawn from the holdings of the MoMA library exploring the ways in which contemporary artists and designers use the magazine as an experimental space.

The full table of contents of A Prior Magazine 22 (2011)

Dissent, non-conformism and the role of intellectuals in a non-democratic state – in most eastern central European countries, issues of this sort tend to be of no more than historical interest. Not in Ukraine, however. Reflecting on the new political “ice age” and the demoralization of the opposition under Viktor Yanukovych, Krytyka invites re-readings of Vaclav Havel, Czeslaw Milosz and China’s prominent dissident, Nobel Price winner Liu Xiaobo.

Oleksandr Bojchenko looks back at recent political controversies involving Ukrainian writers and points out the dilemmas facing public intellectuals given the increasingly non-democratic political regime and growing radical nationalism. Elaborating on Yuri Andruchovych’s provocative remark that Ukraine without Crimea and Donbas would have better chances of succeeding as a nation, Bojchenko argues that the existing east-west divide renders the mission of the public intellectual impossible: “In a Ukraine without Donbas and Crimea, liberal intellectuals would be able to concentrate on counteracting nationalist radicalism. In Ukraine today, they are doomed to fight a losing battle on two fronts.”

Human rights: Evhen Zakharov, the head of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, expresses concerns about the harassment of the opposition and civil society, the abuse of the judiciary as an instrument of political pressure, and growing police violence. He estimates that almost one million people suffered from police abuse in Ukraine in 2011. “If, between 2005 and 2009, state policy concerning human rights could be characterized as inefficient, inconsistent and chaotic, in 2011 there was no policy at all.” At the same time, the country saw a wave of mass protest actions that are likely to increase in the wake of parliamentary elections this year.

Media identities: Volodymyr Kulyk, an expert on Ukrainian media, explores the role of the Internet in shaping collective identities and political loyalties. The transnational character of the new web culture makes it difficult for a nation state to control information and communication inside (and beyond) its borders. While news portals, forums and chats strengthen links to the homeland for Ukrainians living abroad, Russian products available via the Internet – films, popular music and mass fiction – are increasingly attractive for users in Ukraine. In the dualistic terms typical of the Ukrainian discourse on national identity, Kulyk concludes: “The Internet opens an incredibly broad access to various layers of Russian culture, in this way facilitating Russian identity in Ukraine. At the same time, it enables the active creation of a Ukrainian culture and identity distinct from the Russian one. Which tendency will prevail in the future is difficult to say”.

The full table of contents of Krytyka 11-12/2011

Non-governmental organizations have been constant companions to the occidental form of democracy established after the Cold War, write Bernard Hours and Monique Selim in Multitudes, pointing out that, in the recent political movements in Northern Africa, longstanding NGOs representing civil society have been invisible. The relation between corporate business and NGOs has also changed with the advent of the concept of “corporate social responsibility”, they observe: co-operation with global enterprises creates new forms of dependency and entails contradictions between the idea of social justice and corporate goals.

Sexual equality: Mathieu Caulier describes how, in Mexico, NGOs dedicated to sexual equality have changed from militant feminist organizations into “gender enterprises”; and Ioana Cirstocea looks at NGOs promoting sexual equality and democracy in post-communist countries, emphasizing the importance of internationally active organizations such as the Soros Foundations, which, she argues, combine local feminist approaches and global concepts.

Democratization and development: Antoine Heemeryck explores the relation between “democratization” and political power, referring to the Romanian case to argue that NGOs that promote democracy “take part in reproducing patterns of domination on a global scale that establish western democracy as a fixed horizon”. Mouhamedoune Abdoulaye Fall levels a similar criticism at development-based NGOs in Senegal, which, despite their distrust of experts, follow the same schemes of “development”: “Once they arrive in local collectives, they are quickly convinced of their weaknesses; all that remains to do is the rewarding job of upgrading local actors to global norms.”

Charity and philanthropy: Olivier Douville looks at NGOs working with street children and the underlying concepts of childhood and family they propound. He argues that in order to legitimize their own work these NGOs need to cast the children as victims, thus degrading children to objects in a global competition for attention and donations. Juliette Lavaud, meanwhile, observes how fundraising on the street has transformed solidarity into a banal act of charity. And in a second essay, Bernard Hours and Monique Selim describe the slow transformation of NGOs in Bangladesh, Uzbekistan and China into tame instruments of philanthropy: “The reference to justice has been replaced by the reference to human rights in general, which themselves have been partly naturalized as species’ rights in biodiversity”.

The full table of contents of Multitudes 47 (2011)

“There has been a similarity between the reckless and irresponsible way that Captain Francesco Schettino commanded his ship and the manner in which the leaders of the Valencian right have governed this area since 1995”, remark the editors of L’Espill in their introduction to a dossier on the future of the Valencia region. In the decade up to 2007, Valencia had annual growth rates close to 4 per cent, higher than the Spanish average, and its population grew by a million. Since the global crisis broke, however, unemployment has risen massively and the regional government has the highest debt per capita of any of Spain’s regions; at the same time the politicians who dominate Valencian politics have been hit by an avalanche of corruption charges.

Boom and bust: Relating Valencia’s problems to the international crisis, Ernest Reig describes how the region’s boom was fed above all by the foreign credit that flooded in on the back of low eurozone interest rates. At the time, authorities across Europe saw this as part of a “powerful process of economic convergence in Spain towards the living standards of other more advanced European countries”. Had the money been used for long-term productive purposes, this might have been the case. Instead, writes Reig, Valencia’s authorities committed themselves to promoting tourist development and a colossal property bubble; meanwhile, agriculture, industry and levels of education and training all declined. Since the bubble burst, Valencia’s unstable, low-wage economy has been ill-equipped to face the new conditions, an inability compounded by Spain’s position in the eurozone and the “timid, late, insufficient and defective” response to the debt crisis from the EU.

Corruption: Adolf Beltran analyses the openings for bribery and favours the boom provided through the handing out of contracts and the re-classification of land for building. And yet, despite multiple scandals, the Partido Popular has retained its hegemony in local, regional and national elections, indicating a complicity among wider society. Beltran argues that the PP fostered a “culture of speculation” in Valencia, where rapid riches were available through contacts with the local administration, and anyone with any property was dazzled by its multiplication in value. The party also brandished a populist “ideology of exhibitionism”, promoting “big events” – such as a Formula 1 Grand Prix – to demonstrate the wealth it was bringing to Valencia. The attitudes encouraged by the “easy money” – political disengagement, tolerance of corruption – are not easily overcome.

Also: To prevent the EU from turning into a “post-democratic regime of bureaucrats”, writes Per Wirtén, intellectuals need to stop mumbling and take the fear of Europe seriously; and Tom Van Imschoot covers new trends in Flemish fiction.

The full table of contents of L’Espill 39 (2011)

In an issue of Czech journal RozRazil all about “rain”, poet Ivan Petlan presents a selection of brooding poems by a range of Czech poets including Ivan Wernisch, Jan Zábrana and Petr Král, recommending that for a truly authentic experience the reader “place this issue of RozRazil into a transparent rainproof folder and read it outside in the rain without any headgear.”

Ancient rain: Classicist and environmentalist Lubor Kysucan explains what rain meant for ancient civilizations. “Because of its primary, indeed existential significance, it was part of antique mythology, becoming – along with wine, olive oil, unrestrained eroticism, the sea and the sun – a phenomenon without which classical Mediterranean civilization would be almost unimaginable. Rainmakers, rain salesmen, as well as madmen who wanted to give orders to the rain and the wind, have all passed among raindrops. Civilizations and eras alternated between raindrops. But ultimately it is rain that has stayed with us forever, beating down on ruins of ancient cities as well as on the latest fashions in our postmodernist architecture.”

Writing in the rain: Writers Ota Filip and Martin Pollack share seminal experiences with rain. After being dogged by it all his life, Filip finally came to terms with rain at age seventy, realizing in a hotel at Lake Tahoe that “I found the sound of raindrops pattering on the window and the grey veil of fog above the lake very calming […] and that I have written my best lyrical passages while it was quietly raining outside, and dramatic scenes worked out best when a thunderstorm raged, breaking the branches of trees and flooding pavements and streets.” Pollack was initially concerned to discover that his new garden library-cum-study lacked a gutter but soon learned to love the curtain of rain outside the entrance: “I have to pass through a thick carpet of rain from the roof, often several times each day. Because I’ve left something at home, because I want to make myself a cup of coffee, because my wife calls me […] I discovered how beautiful a rain screen could be.”

Also rains: Mária Ferencuhová discusses logistical, economic, environmental and philosophical aspects of weather forecasts with two Czech meteorologists, a climatologist and a parachutist; eight Czech and Slovak writers list their favourite rain scenes in world cinema; nuclear scientist and environmentalist Petr A. Skrehot introduces readers to various cloud shapes; Hana Bartosová contributes a potted history of the umbrella; and poet and artist Ivo Vodsedálek describes the trials and tribulations of ballooning during communism.

The full table of contents of RozRazil 41-42 (2012)

Published 21 March 2012

Original in English
First published in

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